Internet Archive Canada's 200,000 Digitized Text
was the first publication of author Robert W. Service and became instantly popular when it was published in 1907. There were 10 Canadian printings in that first year of publication, totaling 12,750 copies.
The collection includes “ The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “ The Cremation of Sam McGee”. Which have become classics taught in literature classes, recited widely, referenced in films and music such as the 1949 song "Dangerous Dan McGrew" by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.
Service initially sent the manuscript of Songs of a Sourdough to the Methodist Book and Publishing House in Toronto to be published at his own expense. The book subsequently came to the attention of editors in the office, and a commercial edition was ordered. The first, “Author's Edition” was 500 copies, but with so many orders even before the date of publication, a second edition of 750 was immediately printed.
This first edition copy, contributed by The Thomas Fisher Library is an excellent example of Canadiana, detailing the landscapes of the Northwest and memorable characters involved with the Gold Rush in the Yukon Territory.
January 6, 2020 Subject:
In the dough
Struggling young authors are often advised to write about the world they know best - a good rule, but one that needs to be broken now and again. The Anglo-Scottish writer Robert Service gave us some of the classic poems of the Canadian gold rush, when his knowledge of mining was precisely nil.
He was a humble bank clerk who kept disappearing to wander the American west, ending up in the Yukon branch of his bank. Here he picked up a few odd impressions of the goldmining life, overheard from prospectors chatting in a local bar, and turned them into a narrative verse, The Shooting of Dan McGrew. This proved notably popular, and he quickly wrote the rest of the present volume, which earned him a fortune.
Much of it was clearly styled after Kipling, and sometimes dismissed as ‘doggerel’ in the same patronising spirit, which never bothered him, however. In ‘The Little Old Log Cabin’, he tries to switch into rough street-talk, as Kipling often did (causing critics to grumble “Why can’t he write in English?”), and the experiment is not a success. Some of the longer pieces also suffer from periodic ‘shoe horning’ of words to fit a rhythm or a rhyme, which Poet Laureate John Masefield sometimes felt obliged to do.
None of this detracts from the splendid muscularity of the verse, starting right away in the first poem ‘The Law of the Yukon’:
This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:
"Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane.”
That sets the tone for the brisk, masculine quick-march through life, which tends to characterise the collection as a whole. Attempts at sentimental effects do not really come off, except in one poem, the immortal ‘My Madonna’, just sixteen lines, and shining masterpiece of the book.
Two of the titles leave me unsure who copied whom. I had always thought the phrase ‘wage slave’ was coined by Kipling. And Jack London’s novel ‘The Call of the Wild’ appeared in the same year (1903) as this poem of the same name. But we know that ‘sourdough’ was the name for an experienced Yukon miner (accustomed to the bitter-tasting leavener that stopped the bread freezing), who needed to be distinguished from the rabble in the 1896 gold rush.